Language learning is the educational imperative of our generation Posted by on Aug 13, 2018 in Archived Posts

In response to America’s language deficit, a bipartisan Congressional report has called for the country to “to value language education as a persistent national need similar to education in math or English, and to ensure that a useful level of proficiency is within every student’s reach.”

Earlier this year, CIA Director Gina Haspel included “emphasizing foreign language excellence” as part of the agency’s core strategy. Former CIA Director Leon Panetta recently echoed—and expanded upon—that sentiment in an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle. Panetta has been invested in language skills since the 1970s, when he was a member of the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies. As he points out, the Commission found that “Americans’ incompetence in foreign languages is nothing short of scandalous.”

Four decades later, the language gap has not been bridged, and public officials remain concerned. And they should be; language skills are required to navigate great challenges (and great opportunities) not only in national security, but also business and trade, diplomacy, global health, disaster preparedness and relief, and so on.

In 2014, a bipartisan request from Congress to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences prompted a new study of the nation’s language education needs. In the resulting report, America’s Languages: Investing in Language Learning for the 21st Century, the Commission recommends “a national strategy to improve access to as many languages as possible for people of every region, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background—that is, to value language education as a persistent national need similar to education in math or English, and to ensure that a useful level of proficiency is within every student’s reach.”

world in hand

Public officials are combating the language deficit with legislation and funding, but there is more to be done.

Specific recommendations in the America’s Languages report focus on expanding (and better funding) public language education: increasing the number of language teachers or supplementing through digital technology and blended learning methods; supporting and expanding heritage language programs; increasing support and creating more educational materials for Native American languages; and encouraging and providing federal financial aid for study abroad programs.

A number of state and federal initiatives are aiming to meet those needs:

  • A bipartisan group in the House of Representatives proposed the World Language Advancement and Readiness Act which, if passed, will fund a grant program that authorizes the Department of Defense to issue grants that support K-12 language studies.
  • Title VI of the Every Student Succeeds Act includes federal funding to support Native American, Alaska Native, and native Hawaiian immersion programs.
  • In 2016, Californians voted overwhelmingly in favor (73.5% vs. 26.5%) of Proposition 58, which repealed the English-only requirement in public classrooms. The California Education for a Global Economic Initiative will create school-based language immersion programs.
  • Almost every state now offers—or is in the process of setting up—the Seal of Biliteracy, an award attached to a high school diploma in recognition of students who have demonstrated proficiency in more than one language.

Those efforts and others like them are promising, but it’s not enough.

America needs a nationwide attitude adjustment on foreign languages.

In a recent interview, ACTFL Executive Directory Marty Abbott  explained that the language gap in the U.S. is actually getting worse and enrollment in language classes is falling. Only about 20% of American K-12 students are enrolled in language courses, compared to 92% in Europe.

Abbott believes attitudes have something to do with it: “I think Americans have a mindset that, as a country, we’re not good at languages, that they’re tough, they’re challenging, that maybe only academically gifted students can do it. And that’s a false idea, because we were able to learn our first language. Most of the rest of the world grows up bilingually, with the knowledge of more than one language. It just hasn’t been our normal in the United States.”

While at the helm of ACTFL, she hopes to create a “new normal” in which students and parents understand that English is not enough, and that there is a link between language skills and future success.

To that end, the America’s Languages report agrees. While English is on the rise on a global scale, the report acknowledges “an emerging consensus among leaders in business and politics, teachers, scientists, and community members that proficiency in English is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world, nor the needs of individual citizens who interact with other peoples and cultures more than at any other time in human history.”

This consensus has a long way to spread, however. Congress is considering a bill allowing computer coding languages to fulfill foreign language requirements. Media outlets frequently report on a supposed cut-off age for language learning (even though the research they cite concludes no such thing) and publish op-eds titled Should Schools Require Foreign Languages? Doubtful. Leaders and figureheads in this country are still sending the wrong message, which, if not changed, will result in even lower enrollment rates among tomorrow’s young people.

Public organizations and community leaders must promote and provide language learning opportunities to people of all backgrounds.

Raising awareness, which Abbott says is the number one way to improve language education in the U.S., must happen at the local level. Panetta puts the onus on parents, educators, policymakers, and leaders in business in government. Parents can pass down heritage languages, educators and policymakers can strengthen foreign language requirements and expand course offerings, and businesses can provide language training and professional development opportunities.

There is another group upon whom we can rely to promote languages and cultures: public libraries. The days of libraries housing little more than books are long gone. Libraries make otherwise expensive resources freely available, preserve and organize cultural collections, and bring people and ideas together.

The modern library is a linguistic and cultural community center—providing multilingual collections, programming foreign movie nights and bilingual story times, facilitating conversation groups, offering online language learning materials, and so on. These services make language learning a possibility for individuals of all ages and backgrounds and can fill gaps in a community’s K-12 language education offerings.

Foreign language instruction must be a national priority, as well as an individual responsibility. Language learning is our generation’s educational imperative. If we do not instill the value of languages to today’s students and provide the means to learn them to a high degree of proficiency, tomorrow’s leaders will be facing the same language deficit that holds us back as a nation today.

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